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How to Photograph Smoke
Smoke photography can be extremely frustrating yet fulfilling at the same time. It all depends on how you approach the subject. If you have spare time and/or stuck indoors on a rainy day, then it’s the perfect opportunity to try this technique. There is no need for expensive camera equipment. Just your camera, flash and a few household products will do the job.
All you need is a basic understanding of the relationship between the subject, lighting and background. The one vital ingredient that I would say is a must is PATIENCE! Oh, and a camera of course… Without those two things, you will walk away very stressed.
There is no right or wrong way to achieve the perfect smoke trail. I used a mixture of my own method as well as techniques I picked up from others. The idea is to experiment and use whatever process you are comfortable with. You may even find a better way to do it. The important thing is that you get the perfect picture.
In this tutorial, I will guide you through the entire shoot step-by-step. I will also offer my own ideas so you can try different techniques.
Ok, let’s begin…
STEP 1: Have the right equipment
Besides the camera and flash, you can improvise with almost everything else. I will be making suggestions during the tutorial so don’t panic if you are missing some items.
The basic equipment you will need is:
1. Camera – with control over shooting mode. Preferably a DSLR so you can manually adjust the shutter speed, aperture and focus.
2. Off camera Flash or Strobe with Snoot – don’t worry if you don’t have a snoot. I made mine with a cereal box and some black art paper:-)
3. Incense stick and holder – Incense sticks are the best source of smoke as they have a pleasant smell and provide a longer lasting continuous plume of smoke. If you don’t have a proper holder, you can use anything from play dough to a potato. As long as it holds the incense in place, it doesn’t matter what you use. You might also want to use something to catch the ash.
4. Black background and surface – You can use any dark coloured non-reflective background, but black is best if you want to capture perfect contrast and details of the smoke. You will also avoid lengthy post processing in Photoshop. Use paper, card or even velvet if you don’t have a proper colorama background. The black surface is not vital but helps to avoid any stray light bouncing off onto the background or the camera lens.
5. Tripod – This is not entirely necessary, but for this tutorial, we will use one. I took all my smoke photos handheld. It’s a little more difficult but you get some unique shots. Experiment with both methods and see which is best for you.
6. Reflector – This is optional if you want to reflect more light onto the smoke.
7. Portable light – A torch or something to light up the smoke so you can lock focus…and see where you’re going in the dark…
8. A well-ventilated room – This is very important. Do not try it in a small room with just one small window! The smoke will fill a large room within 10-15mins so you will need to air the room out from time to time. This is because the smoke in the room will decrease the quality of your photo. Oh, and it’s not good for your health to breathe in all that smoke, even if it does smell good.
9. A lighter – you have to light the incense…:-)
10. PATIENCE! Lots of it!
STEP 2: The Studio Set Up
Now that you got all your gear, you will need to set them up in a way that will prevent any light spilling onto the black background or into your camera lens. I have included images below to illustrate the set up I use. The first image is the basic set up.
- Put up your black background
- Place the incense stick about 3-4ft away from the background
- Place the flash/strobe to the right (or left) of the incense about 1-2ft away
- If using a reflector, place it on the opposite side, facing directly at the incense stick
- Place the camera on a tripod in front of the incense about 2-3ft away
You can also arrange the equipment at an angle to the background, just make sure that you avoid any light reflecting onto the background. This is important because smoke has a natural grey colour so you need a pure black background to give it contrast. You also need to make sure that when you fire the flash, no light hits the camera lens. This will create glare in your picture. It is not entirely a bad thing as you can still turn it into a creative image, but you don’t want glare on all your photos.
Glare in a smoke image is usually a bad thing, but not always. Most of the time I remove it later during my post-processing but occasionally I like the solar effect that it can create.
STEP 3: Camera and Flash Settings
In order to capture a decent smoke photograph you need to remember four important factors that need to be adhered to,
1. Fast shutter speed – because it is constantly moving, you need to catch the motion of the smoke
2. Small aperture – for a greater depth of field. Smoke is unpredictable so setting a small aperture allows you to capture more of it in case of sudden changes in shape.
3. Low ISO – This is because smoke will naturally show up on a photograph as grainy. A higher ISO will make this worse
4. Light – You need lots of it. With a combination of fast shutter speed, small aperture and low ISO, there is not enough light to expose the shot. Therefore, the smoke will need to be lit up appropriately.
With all that in mind, set your camera accordingly based on its capabilities.
As guidance, below are the settings I used with my Nikon D300 and a Nikon SB-900 Speedlight:
- Camera mode – Manual
- Shutter Speed – 1/250
- Aperture – between f/8 – f/16
- ISO – 100 (or lower if your camera allows it)
- Manual focus
- White Balance – Auto or Flash
- Focal length – This is your choice depending on how close you want to get to the smoke.
- Flash output should be set at half power or above. Adjust according to your preference.
Ideally, you should use a flash or strobe that you can trigger remotely. However, you can connect the flash directly to your camera with a sync cord. Just be careful not to trip over it in the dark.
You also need to channel as much light onto the smoke as possible. This is when a snoot or barn doors come in useful. If you don’t have either of these, use some card and secure it around the edge of the flash or strobe. Make sure the card extends out by about 2-3 inches.
STEP 4: Taking the shot
Now that you have everything in place, you need to ensure that all doors and windows are closed. Smoke is very delicate, so the slightest draught will disturb it and create thin unstable plumes, which you will find difficult to capture in detail. The room needs to be perfectly still.
Next, light the incense stick. If you want thicker and unique swirls of smoke then I would suggest lighting up two incense sticks and placing them in the same holder together.Now, turn off your camera’s auto-focus feature, as it will not help at all.
The smoke will be constantly moving and once the lights are turned off, it will struggle to find a focal point. Watch the smoke to see where it goes and manually focus on where you think the smoke will end up when you release the shutter. I would suggest focusing on the part just 2-3cm above the tip of the incense stick. If you need to, use the torch to light up the smoke so you can adjust the focus accurately.
Once done grab your torch and switch off all the lights in the room. Although, in my opinion, it doesn’t really matter if you shoot with the lights on or off, but for best results it is good to shoot in a darkened room to avoid any ambient light reducing the contrast.
Take some test shot’s to check the exposure and adjust the settings accordingly. The idea is to get the background underexposed to a pure black (RGB 0, 0, 0) and the brightest part of the smoke should be white. When you’re happy with the exposure settings, its time to get creative and start shooting!
When photographing smoke, I aim to capture smooth shapes and swirls in perfect detail and from different angles. All the smoke images you see in my gallery were taken without a tripod. I got in close to the smoke and moved around it to capture a different perspective.
You can try the same if you get bored with standard smoke swirls. You can even alter the transition of the smoke to create different shapes by placing a spoon, or any other object, above the incense stick. Also, try gently wafting the smoke to get different patterns.
And don’t forget, ventilate the room every 10-15mins. The build up of smoke will create a grey haze that will deprive your picture of light and contrast. It is also very uncomfortable to work in a room full of smoke no matter how rosy it smells…
As I said at the start of this tutorial, there is no standard or “correct” way to photograph smoke. It’s all about experimenting and finding your own technique. You may end up taking hundreds of photos and keeping just a fraction of them, don’t let that put you off. Smoke is an unpredictable subject to shoot, and with the settings required to capture it, it is hard to get it right every shot. It’s all about trial and error.
That’s all there is to it…
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